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So you’re the only girl on the block. How to succeed as a female filmmaker.

By June 6, 2014 News 44 Comments

13 min read

Five years ago, I entered into the filmmaking arena a minority, an underdog. I didn’t go to film school, I’m just over 5’ tall, I’m young…. and I’m female. If you were able to place bets on me at a casino the odds would be something like 341:1.

That’s not too far from where a lot of other women feel like they are at in their filmmaking careers, but here’s the secret:

On paper, you may be the underdog. But don’t for one second let yourself believe it.

I went from working at 3M in an engineering lab to all-access on the sidelines of the Superbowl in just 19 short months. From there, I went on to take a major role in the production of A Game of Honor and, over the past few years, I’ve had the privilege to work on a number of different productions, large and small.

As I look back, I’ve discovered a lot about what it takes to succeed as a female filmmaker and I want to share five powerful ideas I’ve learned with you.

This is a tough industry. It’s a harsh landscape for any filmmaker, but it’s especially challenging for women who have dreams to succeed in this space. Make no mistake, women are still the minority, but we don’t have to be the underdog.

It’s important to point out that with immense challenges also come opportunities to succeed.

Some may say that being DP of a feature-length doc and winning some Emmys in just five short years are significant triumphs, and I wouldn’t disagree, but I also feel that is something that’s within everyone’s reach.

You just have to want it enough to go for it, regardless of age, race, or gender.

So how do we handle being repeatedly marginalized, dealing with inappropriate comments on set and making the most out of fighting an uphill battle? Ladies, this one is for you.

Here are 5 things I’ve learned about how to succeed as a female filmmaker.

1. Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You

It’s hard enough to take on a leading role in filmmaking. We have to really put in the hours, know our stuff and earn the respect of others.

For women, it’s exponentially harder.

We often have to do so much more to get the same opportunities as our male counterparts. Is it fair? Of course not. Does it piss me off? You bet it does. But we can either complain or we can go out and create our own reality.

I’ve been told I’m not fit for a shoot because I don’t do steadicam. I’ve been told I don’t know enough about football to tell the story properly. I’ve been discounted because of my physical size and strength. And I’ve heard more inappropriate sexist comments on set than I care to share.

Any one of those would make someone uncomfortable. That is the space we work in, but those same things also fuel me to push past it.

It’s easy to fold and just accept what the industry norms are when we’re faced with so many challenges but instead of fighting with words, ignoring it, or accepting it, we can turn that unfavorable situation into something positive:

If women have to work harder to get the same opportunities, then let’s push ourselves harder to not just be good, but to be better. Keep your foot on the gas pedal.

By raising the bar, you will bring more to the table. Do that enough, and you’ll make yourself so invaluable that people will want to put you in a leadership role.

It’s the same thing we say to people when they say ‘I hope to be like Stillmotion some day’. Our reply is always the same.

Don’t strive to be like us, strive to be better.

2. Cameras Don’t Tell Stories, People Do

I’ve seen so many filmmakers focus on the tech: MoVi, Epics, HMIs and all the latest gear. If you’re not a gearhead, that can be uncomfortable. The focus here is to realize that filmmaking is so much more than that.

Filmmaking is just a form of storytelling – being able to craft a story that takes people to another place, connects them to something new, and shows them a different perspective. This is all accomplished through the experience you create.

As a studio we’ve always believed that the experience is directly tied to what goes on screen.

How you make first contact, how you conduct that interview, and how you interact with the crew and the talent all translate to how your final story will feel.

As women, our ability to connect gives us a huge opportunity to take leading roles, especially in directing or producing, and create strong experiences on set. That in turn will translate to stronger stories, and much more enjoyment for your crew and talent.

On set communication is paramount. Directing and DP-ing are all about having a vision and being able to communicate that vision.

Connecting with your talent, connecting with your crew, and ultimately connecting with an audience is all about the ability connect with an emotion and then communicate it. The better you are able to communicate that emotion the more people will be able to invest themselves in that emotion.

When we make first contact with a client, we share openly with them about who we are so that they feel comfortable doing the same with us. Amina has been doing that for years. Because she’s genuine and curious about their work and their lives, she is able to create a remarkable experience during the shoot because she knows so much about them. It’s incredibly powerful and remarkably effective.

Similarly, on set it’s equally important to create the right experience for your crew. It’s not uncommon for things to go wrong on a shoot and people often start butting heads. To avoid this, it’s necessary to set the stage to resolve issues when they arise. I often put myself in a connector role to help facilitate communication between parties.

When one shooter has different viewpoints from another on how to approach something, I speak to each of them individually to ensure they feel like they are being heard, and then encourage them to work through it together with me so that we can all come to a mutual agreement. That is very different than just coming in and dictating what you want.

If you look at things from a human standpoint and connect with those around you, you’ll be able to create real moments that will not only result in a better story, but also be a better experience for everyone involved.

So, sure, gear is important… and it can be a lot of fun. But your voice and the experiences you create for people are exponentially more impactful to the story you’re trying to tell.

3. You are unexpected in your field. Let that be a strength.

Because women in the film world are rare, it seems that sometimes people aren’t quite sure what to make of us.

Whether it’s our nature or not, people expect women to be less competitive. That expectation can offer you a competitive edge. The lack of testosterone is a benefit here. You can use a more sensitive approach and can catch people off guard with that. You can leverage the novelty of your approach on set into a better shoot.

From getting access to places cameras generally aren’t allowed to disarming people with the questions asked during an interview, use that to your advantage and leverage it to make the most of each situation.

I can’t tell you how many times a producer has sent me into a scenario simply because they knew the people on the other end would be more receptive to a woman than ‘another camera guy’.

There are a few people at CBS who call Patrick the bull in the China shop. He can certainly get things done but not always in a way that doesn’t get us in trouble – and in those scenarios I’ll get the call :)

I got a lot of those calls when we were working with LT, Lawrence Taylor, one of the most badass, fiercest football hall of famer of all time. This guy can literally crush people with his bare hands and most people find him just a tad scary.

I wasn’t exactly comfortable around him either, but I was probably the first or one of the few female DPs he’s seen in all his years in front of the media, which ended up being a huge advantage for us. When we needed him to change out of his bright white shirt on a bright sunny day, or when we needed to ask for more time, or when we need to get more access – guess who went in to make the ask and made it happen?

The key here is to lead with the unexpected, but then follow through with the delivery. Let surprise be your tactic. Then get in there and knock their socks off.

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4. Warning: You are going to have to raise your voice.

Okay, I don’t mean go around yelling at people. I mean that you are going to have to speak up.

Set the expectation that you are a valuable resource and that you have every intention to make significant contributions. It’s important to set that expectation for both the people you are working with and for yourself.

This means listening to the story and making sure you are doing what you can to further it. It means speaking up when you have a good idea that will help. It means standing up and fighting for what you truly believe in, even when it’s hard.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s a challenging space for young women in an old boys club, there’s no question about that. But don’t submit to defeat before even trying.

It’s totally normal to have doubts, but if you put them aside for a moment, you will find that you are completely capable. Feeling like an impostor is totally normal, but giving in to that feeling isn’t going to get you anywhere good.

If we don’t lay down the groundwork, people will never see the incredible value we have to offer.

I’m only 5’2” so just about everyone is bigger than me. To make things even more challenging we often work with directors who are really tall guys. Like, really tall. So it’s not easy for a small woman like me to speak up and challenge them on things.

When I went to Taiwan to work on a piece that involved Jeremy Lin’s escape from the hotel to play street ball I was asked to bring a slider. When I mentioned to the director that I didn’t need to bring one it didn’t go over so well.

Sure it would have been easier for me to just go along with it and do what he asks but that would have meant I wasn’t doing my part in furthering the story. So when I explained why didn’t fit, that a slider felt too produced, that it didn’t have the raw feel we were going for, it made sense and we agreed to go without it.

I believe that setting the right expectations that I have more to offer is a large part of the mutual respect that keeps the working relationship a strong one, and continues to get me larger opportunities.

5. Don’t Be Ashamed To Put Your Career First

Despite what a lot of us were told growing up, you probably can’t have it all. No one can. You have to make some hard choices.

Regardless of all the advances women have made in society, we are still faced with a lot of tough decisions as it relates to family and relationship obligations. Women are still often required to take on the majority of the caregiving responsibilities in the household.

In fact all of the familial names we give women: mothers, girlfriends, grandmothers, sisters, are often synonymous with another word: caretakers. This undeniably affects our ability to chase our dreams.

We often voluntarily put ourselves and our needs behind those of the ones we love; only to realize later that our understanding of those needs were short sighted. That we get so caught up in the details of being a caretaker, that we forget to build something larger for ourselves and our families that we can all rely on.

It’s vital that you look deep within yourself to find what it is you truly want to do. Ask why you’ve chosen filmmaking as your calling. And then do everything you can to support fulfilling your dream.

That means surrounding yourself with people who believe in you and support you in your efforts. It means early mornings and late nights when it truly makes a difference. It means being away from home to work towards something you believe in. It means making the necessary sacrifices to go for the win.

Don’t half-ass it. Make the effort to do it right.

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Over the last few years I’ve logged roughly 350,000 flight miles, which means I spend a fair bit of time on the road and I’m not at home much. This is challenging, especially when I’m not around for holidays or special occasions, but sometimes that’s what is required for me to pursue my dream to inspire others and tell meaningful, impactful stories.

It’s one of the toughest balancing acts to accomplish, but in doing so, I hope that it will not only challenge the way I see the world but also bring new perspectives to those I share our films with.

These are all ideas that’s helped me in the past and I’d love nothing more than to see more of you out there succeeding.

With that, we’d like to offer something we’ve never done before – our very first Why She Should Lead Scholarship.

The 2014 Scholarship recipient will be awarded complimentary admission to EVO, our 4-day filmmaking intensive in Portland, OR. EVO is our most in-depth, hands on, and intimate workshop, and it’s being held this July 14-17.

It is regularly priced at $3,997, but we are offering a full scholarship to one female filmmaker.

It’s our way of supporting women in the industry and to encourage discussion about the challenges and advantages of being a female filmmaker.

Deadline for applications is June 16th.

Maribeth is leading this wonderful initiative. You can submit your applications online by June 16th and she’ll be leading our selection committee to choose the winning filmmaker.

Submit your application here. It’s quick and easy :)

We invite you – both men and women – to join us in supporting female storytellers everywhere, and empowering them to make the most of their amazing ability.

Share this post with the women around you and encourage them to pursue their dream, whatever that may be. Let’s change these odds together.

We’re in. Are you?

About Joyce Tsang

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